MANILA, Philippines—The testimonies of three women who claimed they were abused by a Filipino labor officer in Saudi Arabia bolstered allegations of “institutionalized” sexual exploitation of distressed migrant workers in Philippine embassies in the Middle East, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Monday.
Speaking to reporters after two days of consultations with heads of Philippine diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa, Del Rosario said he had widened the investigation of the allegations to include missions in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong that also have shelters for distressed migrant workers.
Del Rosario said he had ordered home the Philippine ambassadors to Singapore and Malaysia and consul general in Hong Kong for consultations.
The three women and a witness met with Del Rosario and other officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and officials of the Department of Labor and Employment last Friday and told them that they were sexually abused by a labor officer in the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who handled their requests for repatriation.
“Certain allegations were confirmed by the three alleged victims who spoke with me on June 21. For the most part, however, until other victims and witnesses come forward, all other allegations, including sex rings, remain as allegations requiring further investigation,” Del Rosario said.
Help for victims
Malacañang on Sunday promised a thorough investigation of the sex-for-repatriation scandal and the prosecution of the labor officers who would be found liable for abusing the distressed Filipino women who had come to them for help.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the government would also give assistance to the victims.
The kind of assistance would depend on the outcome of the investigation, he said.
President Aquino has not spoken about the scandal since it broke out last Tuesday when Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello, chairman of the House committee on overseas workers’ affairs, disclosed the predatory behavior of labor officers in the Philippine embassies in Kuwait, Syria and Jordan.
Lacierda gave the assurance, however, that the Aquino administration does “not sanction” misconduct in the foreign service.
Del Rosario said the investigation by the DFA and by the labor department was going on “to ascertain the validity” of allegations that labor officers were pimping distressed female overseas workers and demanding sex from them in exchange for plane tickets to Manila.
He said the labor officer identified by the three complainants had been recalled from Riyadh.
The DFA has not yet released the identity of the labor officer.
“I think the allegations that I find very shocking are the fact that, well, our people continue to be taken advantage of,” Del Rosario said.
“But it seems there are allegations that this is becoming institutionalized in terms of the establishment of [sex] rings and so forth. These are allegations that have to be proven and we are looking [for] proof that they actually exist,” he said.
Tickets for sale
The DFA is also investigating reports that embassy officials are selling plane tickets to Manila to distressed migrant workers awaiting repatriation.
Earlier, the DFA said the government was shouldering the full cost of repatriating distressed migrant workers. Embassy officials cannot use the repatriation costs as leverage in asking for favors from the migrants, the department said.
“We don’t understand why there is exploitation happening in terms of getting the tickets, because the tickets are, in one way or another, guaranteed,” Del Rosario said.
He urged other victims to come forward and help the investigation.
“What we need to do now is encourage victims and witnesses to come forward. And we hope that we can convince them to do this not only to help themselves but to help others who, like themselves, have been taken advantage of,” he said.
No complaint filed
Formal complaints have yet to be filed, but Del Rosario said Bello may already have received written statements from the three Riyadh complainants.
He said the DFA had apprised Bello and the labor department’s investigative team of the DFA’s recommended actions against labor officers allegedly involved in the scandal.
He said the DFA was also looking to bring graft charges against labor officers tagged in the scandal, as suggested by lawyer Katrina Legarda, a women’s rights advocate who participated in the conclusion of the consultation last Friday.
Legarda, who gave a lecture on “sexploitation” during the meeting, said she had told Del Rosario that officials involved might be held liable for graft and corruption “as injury has been suffered by the government.”
“This way, there is no need for a formal complaint. In fact, I said that if victims are talked to, they will know who other victims may be and the persons they may have told about their experiences. In itself, that is corroborative evidence,” Legarda told the Inquirer.
Del Rosario said the two-day consultations with the diplomats were the beginning of a reform process that would institute changes in the management of migrant workers’ shelters and improve the skills of mission heads in preventing and investigating sex-related cases.
He reiterated that “there should be no fraternization” between embassy officials and migrant workers in the shelters.
“We were able to collate all possible information that I think will enable us to give justice to the victims. We would be able to punish the guilty, and we also will be able to review all the policies and procedures governing our conduct pertaining to cases such as this,” Del Rosario said.—With a report from TJ Burgonio